Andrew Kalmar and Ron Judish suit Denver to a T

The art tidal wave that's hit Denver in the past few years hasn't just led to a museum-building boom. It has also led to an explosion of galleries. I haven't sat down to count all the commercial art venues in town, but I know it numbers more than a hundred. Despite that, there are still only a handful that could be called top-tier. So it's all the more astounding that the new kid on the block, T gallery — or simply T — has become one of the city's most important spots. How can I make this claim, since T's inaugural show just opened last week? Trust me, I'm right on this one.

It all started last February, when Andrew Kalmar began scouting for gallery space. Kalmar had moved from the New York area four years earlier, an auspicious time to hit town for someone interested in the arts, because in the period since, the Mile High City has witnessed a major qualitative shift as well as a quantitative one. I needn't list the litany of advancements, but they include a new wing on the Denver Art Museum and a new building for MCA Denver.

"Monkey Train (Birds)," by Jeff Koons, silkscreen.
"Monkey Train (Birds)," by Jeff Koons, silkscreen.
"Soul of Jacob's Ladder," by Damien Hirst, photo-based print.
"Soul of Jacob's Ladder," by Damien Hirst, photo-based print.

Only 29, Kalmar grew up in New Orleans, attended Princeton University, then took a hedge fund job in Jersey City. But he's not a cold-hearted pencil pusher, as you might expect, and has a wide range of interests and pursuits. He was trained as a classical pianist, for instance, and was a serious amateur fencer during his student years. He comes by this last avocation naturally: His father was an Olympic fencer for Hungary who defected in the 1960s.

Kalmar came to Denver to take another job as a hedge fund manager and wound up falling in love with the place, perceiving how great the potential was for cultural growth. "I've done well for myself, relatively speaking, and one of the dreams I've always had was to deal with the arts," he explains. "My father is an art collector, and I come from a family with a long tradition of art collecting, so I thought it would be cool to start this place. I couldn't really do something like this in New York; it would be the size of a closet."

After exploring different areas, he ultimately chose to locate his gallery on Santa Fe Drive because it's an up-and-coming art district, though few of the galleries on the strip are noteworthy. "It's trying very hard," says Kalmar. The building he rented had been a light manufacturing facility where trophies, plaques and other engraved metals were made. He designed the interior himself, creating three clearly defined exhibition spaces. There's a warm, almost residential character to T that Kalmar created on purpose. "I was conscious about the atmosphere I wanted, and I made a decision that the gallery would not be bleach-white, so that you could look at art in a setting that wasn't so stale or sterile." He also installed state-of-the-art lighting and a sound system.

He decided to call the place T for several reasons, the first of which is in honor of a friend, Tasha Gal, who has been a tremendous inspiration to him. Kalmar also suggests that the letter T is an intersection of lines, the way a gallery is an intersection of art and viewers. "You come to the intersection and you're never the same again," he says. The T also refers to the intersection of artists who will be featured at the gallery: young and established artists, international and local, abstract and representational, and so on.

As the remodeling of the building was coming to completion a few months ago, it was time for Kalmar to starting thinking about hiring a gallery director. Being a successful businessman is a full-time job, and although Kalmar is astonishingly driven, ambitious and committed to T, he knew he'd need help running the place. The suite next door to T is leased by Alan Kirchner, who runs Artwork Network, a consulting firm for commercial clients, and Kirchner had an idea of whom Kalmar needed: Ron Judish. One of the best-known gallery directors in Denver, Judish is well remembered for the museum-quality art shows he mounted at his namesake operations in LoDo and then Highland in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Kalmar remembers that when he first approached Judish, "Ron made all the obligatory remarks, like, 'You're not going to make any money' and 'It's hard to sell art in Denver.' And I finally said to him, 'Do you want the job or not?'" Needless to say, Judish did want the job, and the two began laying out plans last summer.

Judish understood that in order to make an initial splash, T had to have a show that would make people sit up and take notice. It's what he did at his own gallery when he opened with an Alice Neel solo. Partly inspired by a show at the MCA, Judish decided to pair mega-art star Damien Hirst with another big-time artist, Jeff Koons, for the prosaically titled Hirst/Koons. Made up of editioned multiples, the show includes three pieces by Hirst and four by Koons. The small number of pieces underscores the fact that both artists are hotter than hot, so their works are hard to come by. It's the same reason there are only four Hirsts at the MCA.

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